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Arresting Anger - Preventing Violence - Strengthening Families

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Why is it So Hard to Forgive?

Posted on July 29, 2012 at 1:19 AM Comments comments (258)
“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
Lewis B. Smedes

Jesus Christ tells a great parable about a certain king who wanted to reconcile accounts with his servants. A certain servant owing the king ten thousand talents was unable to pay his debt. Faced with the prospect of having himself, his wife and family sold into slavery, he begged the king for mercy, and mercy was granted to him. The story then goes on to tell of how that servant found another fellow servant who owed him a much smaller amount, but would not show the same mercy which had been shown to him; instead commanding that his creditor be thrown in prison until he pay every last denari of it. Upon hearing about this, the king became furious and reversed his decision to grant his pardon to his wicked and unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23-35). It's a powerful story about the power that unforgiveness has to keep us stuck in our own personal prison; largely due to our own inability to let go.

I think why I love this story is because it's been my story so many times throughout my life. I can relate to the great challenge of releasing someone from a debt that they really should rightly owe to me for what they did. Just as in the parable though, there is often no way someone can repay their debt to you. After all, how can you "unbetray" someone's trust? How can you "un-hurt" a person you have deeply wounded; perhaps even physically? How can you "unshatter" something you have broken beyond repair, or "un-say" powerful words you have said?

I think what makes forgiveness so hard for us is that we often find it difficult to come to terms with exactly what happened, what is owed to us, what is reasonable and what is unreasonable to expect of ourselves and the other person if we do choose to forgive.

To begin with, forgiveness is always about 2 things: one rational and one emotional. Firstly, it's about releasing a debt (either real or imagined), and then (whether we like to admit it or not), it’s also about releasing hatred... yes, hatred.

Hate is a strong word which many of us are taught never to level at anyone. It is a particularly confronting emotion for us to discover in ourselves, and one which most of us would simply rather not see.
For people hoping to portray a good image of themselves as loving, caring or kind, it is often hard to admit that that feeling that we feel is actually hatred.

So what if we just call it for what it is and admit that sometimes things people have brought from us a hateful reaction? Whilst it may be greatly uncomfortable for us, beginning to admit and to own our own hatred places us in a position to choose whether or not we want to keep it.

If to love means to want only the best for someone, even at the expense of what is good for us, then hatred will require no less of us in the pursuit of wishing the worst for someone. Like trying to hold a beach ball under the surface of a pool, there is a lot of energy required of the person who chooses to hold onto hatred. Debbie Ford is quoted as having said, "Unforgiveness is the poison you drink every day hoping that the other person will die."

It’s my suspicion that, more often than not, we choose to hold on to the debt and the hate because we have made forgiveness harder than it needed to be by adding unnecessary conditions to it. I would like to suggest that if forgiveness seems like a mountain that’s impossible for you to scale, you might do well to make sure you are even “on the right mountain.” Here’s a few pointers which I have found helpful for clarifying what forgiveness should look like:

·        Forgiveness does not depend on my having to first have an apology from another person. In fact, my forgiveness should not require anything from them at all; it’s something that I decide to do, and it’s very personal. Neither does forgiveness depend on the other person changing their behaviour, repenting, or even recognising that they have done anything wrong. It is purely a matter between me and God.
·        Forgiveness does not have anything to do with trust. Trust is my gift to others, and is dependent on how they have treated me in the past. Trust is not blind; trust can be earned and trust can be lost. Trust is always built a lot more slowly after it has been betrayed once before, and sometimes might never be rebuilt. This does not mean that I have not forgiven somebody. Forgiveness is about releasing them from the debt of what they have done, not about opening myself up to be abused again.
·        Forgiveness does not mean that I forget the offence or stop hurting. Whilst God says that He can forgive and forget, it is not biologically possible for me to be able to do that; you see, I am not God. The best forgiveness that I can give somebody will actually be the debt that I cancel even though I do still powerfully remember, and do still feel the hurt.
·        Being angry does not mean that I haven’t yet forgiven. My anger is in response to behaviours and events which are not right. Hatred, on the other hand, is about contempt for the person that they are connected to. There is a big difference, and sometimes it is important to draw upon a better kind of anger in order to bring healthy change to our lives and relationships.
·        Creating boundaries around my heart, my soul, my body or anything else which is mine is not a sign of unforgiveness. Healthy boundaries are a sign that I am guarding my heart in the right ways, just as the Bible suggests.
·        Sometimes there will be hard consequences for the actions of those who have hurt me. It does not mean that I am hateful or unforgiving if I do not rush to rescue them from those consequences. In fact, sometimes the other person will benefit greatly when I step back and allow consequences to bring growth and change into their life. As long as I am not taking some sadistic joy in watching them suffer the consequences, this is not unforgiveness either.
Finally, forgiveness is not an event; it is a process. Sometimes I will need to release someone and forgive them several times an hour. The fact that I have to keep forgiving the same offence over and over in my head does not mean that I didn’t really mean it the last hundred times; sometimes that’s just what progress looks like – that I keep forgiving anyway. You might find, as I have, that the duration between having to put it down at the foot of the cross again and again increases over time; maybe once a week, then once a month. Finally, one wonderful day you realise that, although it still hurts, the offence has now moved from the present to the past; the hate has gone, and you are truly free.